Most of UK agriculture dept's customer interactions are paper based

Only 20% of biz apps directly supported, with 30% requiring 'hypercare' at farming org

Two-thirds of the UK’s farming agency’s interaction with its 21 million customers still require paper-based forms, after decades of digital government initiatives.

As of July 2021, the majority of Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs' services had some elements which required users to phone helplines or complete forms offline, according to a report published by the Public Accounts Committee this week.

The Parliamentary public spending watchdog said: “At this time, only 34 of Defra’s 101 transactional services — those that allow users to exchange money for services or update official records — could be used fully online.”

Defra handled an annual budget of £4.6 billion ($5.75 billion) in 2022, although the figure is expected to fall owing to public spending cuts. Yet the department continues to pay additional charges to keep its mammoth legacy estate up and running.

According to the PAC, the Whitehall department is responsible for about 365 main business applications. Only 20 percent were new and directly supported by the original supplier, leaving half on extended support and 30 percent out of support and requiring “hypercare” from the Defra tech team.

“For this 80 percent of applications which are in extended support or hypercare, Defra may have to pay additional charges for support,” the PAC said.

The ratio of out-of-support applications also increased the risk of failure and cyber attack, the report said.

In one of the worst examples, the system used to record bovine tuberculosis tests results from vets and farmers required its users to buy old laptops on eBay to be able to run Defra’s programme to use the application since modern operating systems were no longer supported.

“Defra told us that it had recently invested around £11 million [$13.75 million] in upgrading the system, which meant that it could be run on an iPad or phone,” the PAC said.

Such is the status of the legacy problem, it dragged resources and focus away from the department moving forward with its tech improvement plans.

“Defra does not have a strategy or vision needed for its long-term digital transformation. Defra has so far focused on stabilising its legacy applications by seeking to mitigate the biggest risks of cyber-attack or operational failure and is moving towards enhancing and transforming these applications. But it does not yet have a strategy for the transformation of its digital services and is not taking a proactive approach to challenges, such as reducing reliance on paper forms and making applications available on mobile phones,” the PAC said.

Instead, it was reactive and tried to address urgent issues such as implementing the IT systems needed for EU Exit, MPs said. “Defra does not yet have agreed standards for IT systems across the Department and its organisation that would ensure they are developed in a more consistent way across the Group,” the report said.

Defra should develop a longer-term digital and data strategy and report back by the end of March 2024, outlining details of the actions planned in its strategy, advised the PAC.

In June last year, the UK government set out a digital strategy which promised it would become “a transformed, more efficient digital government” by 2025.

By the same deadline, it said it would provide “user-centric policies and public services that are more efficient, fit for the digital age, centred on user needs and deliver the right outcomes”.

If the PAC report is anything to go by, Defra has a long way to go if it is to meet that aspiration in the next 18 months. ®

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